We do not need to physically preserve these objects to preserve history. The Toppled Monuments Archive seeks to reroute the impulse to preserve these objects altogether.
The base of Stonewall Jackson statue in Richmond, VA after its removal on July 1, 2020 (all images courtesy the Toppled Monuments Archive, 2020, unless otherwise stated; photo by Sanjay Suchak)
On June 7, a monument to
slave-trader Edward Colston that had stood in Bristol, England for 125 years
was toppled by protestors and pushed into the harbor. Four days later, the
Bristol City Council dredged up the bronze statue and brought it to an
“undisclosed, secure location,” with eventual plans to display it in a museum.
The toppling and subsequent retrieval of the Colston monument
prompts questions about the value placed on objects versus actions. Why did the
object need to be pulled out of the water? Why, after such a clear direct
action, did some respond with a sense of loss? These questions prompted me to
create the Toppled Monuments Archive — an artist-run digital archive of the
documentation of toppled and removed colonialist, imperialist, sexist, racist
and Confederate monuments.
There has been a sharp increase in the toppling and removing of
problematic monuments lately, sparked by widespread Black Lives Matter protests
following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and many
others. These symbolic objects have been toppled, tossed into rivers, and lit
on fire during protests, as part of the historic, anti-racist reckoning
currently taking place worldwide. Conversely, municipal and private efforts to
prevent the toppling of these statues have accompanied these cathartic symbolic
moments. Many cities have physically blocked direct action from taking place by
building fences and utilizing police forces to guard monuments. Cities have
ordered swift removals of busts and statues, either to prevent protestors from
toppling them, to maintain a sense of order, or to gesture hazy solidarity with
broader anti-racist movements.
Let’s look into this trend of relocating monuments. Much like the
Colston statue, the Christopher Columbus monument in Baltimore — which was
toppled and rolled into the harbor during widespread July 4th protests — was
dredged from the harbor two days later with the efforts of both cranes and
divers. These private companies were hired by groups including the Associated
Italian American Charities of Maryland. The monument was moved to private
storage with the intention to repair it and display it elsewhere. Likewise, in Ventura, CA, the city-planned removal of the St. Junípero
Serra statue resulted in its relocation to the San Buenavista Mission, one of
the missions founded by the very same sadistic priest. In Dallas, a Robert E.
Lee monument removed in 2017 was sold at auction for $1.4 million and moved to
a private golf course in 2019.
Numerous other monuments have been moved to the gravesites of the
person they depict. The monument to Confederate general John Castleman, for
example, previously located at Cherokee Triangle in Louisville, Kentucky, has
been placed by his grave.
This shuffling echoes the way people in power move money to avoid
tax penalties and culpability. In the US, the ability to move things — capital
and bodies — is intertwined with white supremacy, and by moving these public
artworks around, this evil slipperiness is enacted with as much racist intent
as what spawned the creation of these monuments in the first place. This begs a few questions: Will the sculptures moved to storage come out
again to stand in more powerful and dangerous positions? Will they re-emerge
depending on the results of the upcoming election? The sale of Confederate
monuments at auction, and their placement in public and private collections and
spaces corrodes the efforts and agency of communities working towards a
long-overdue reckoning with the history of this nation.
The Toppled Monuments Archive seeks to reroute
the impulse to preserve these objects altogether. We do not need to physically
preserve these objects to preserve history. Toppling these monuments is history
happening in real time and these actions are being widely documented.
In putting activism first, the Toppled
Monuments Archive reorients considerations of how to preserve history. We
gather images and video from activists and news outlets. The images are then
protected with anti-facial recognition tools, with respect to the anonymity of
the protestors in the wake of a virulent administration that seeks extreme jail
sentences for those who participate in these actions, including the Executive
Order issued on “Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and
Combating Recent Criminal Violence.” Blurring the faces of the protestors is at
once a protective measure and a compelling aesthetic process of abstraction.
We posit toppling not as a destructive act,
but rather the preservation and relocation of these monuments as damaging. For
example, in reaction to this surge of removals, the members of the Sons of
Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy have begun to
build new monuments, buying property and land to store and display existing
“Most people who oppose these monuments in
public spaces would prefer to see them relocated to a museum or state archive”
noted Lecia Brooks, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the New York Times.
However, preserving these objects in any way actively undoes the work of the
activists and abolitionists who have devoted themselves to the larger
anti-racist movement. Institutions, museums and cities should reevaluate their priorities
and redistribute resources and reparations rather than spending the money on
recontextualizing these objects. In an extensive study conducted in 2018 for
the Smithsonian and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, it was
found that between 2008 and 2018, an estimated $40 million of taxpayer money
was spent on Confederate monuments, sites, and groups that support racist
ideology. These monuments are not only taking up public space, they are costing
the public money.
Efforts to preserve these monuments and prevent their toppling
signal a desire to allow them to continue to exert their power as objects, to
uphold the ideas they stand for, and, perhaps most significantly, to communicate
that property is more important than people. Let’s leave them at the bottom of
rivers and keep them out of our museums.
We need to let these objects die, along with the ideologies they